Jack Dempsey/Associated Press
Despite Chad Kelly’s status as the 2017 draft class’ Mr. Irrelevant, there’s nothing more relevant than his ascension on the Denver Broncos depth chart.
It symbolizes something more than his overtaking Paxton Lynch as the backup quarterback. The second-year signal-caller is well on his way to usurping the 2016 first-round pick as the future face of the franchise.
This role reversal has as much to do with Kelly’s performance as Lynch’s disappointment.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, Case Keenum is the Broncos’ starting quarterback. This isn’t in question, nor will it be at any point in 2018. Beyond that, things will get interesting.
The 30-year-old veteran signed a two-year, $36 million free-agent contract this offseason to stabilize a floundering Denver offense. The team’s previous attempts to address the position didn’t go as planned. 2015 seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian never showed he was capable of elevating the offense, while Lynch’s development stagnated.
At the time of Lynch’s drafting—when general manager John Elway moved up in the first round to select the 6’7″ quarterback—the Memphis product fell further behind on the learning curve than any of the incoming prospects. He came from a simplistic offensive scheme that never forced its quarterback to make NFL-caliber throws or build a passing understanding of pre-snap reads. His struggles were predictable.
David Zalubowski/Associated Press
Yet, Lynch’s natural tools were supposed to help him tread water until the game slowed down and leading the offense became second nature. Neither happened. Lynch has completed 61.7 percent of his passes for 792 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions in five appearances over the last two seasons.
Quarterbacking is a constant learning process. How information is absorbed, retained and translated to the field determines an individual’s success. Thus, teams expect consistent improvement.
Lynch’s lack of growth paved the way for Kelly’s ascent. The process began at training camp, where quarterbacks are expected to experience ups and downs, particularly those competing for a job. The Broncos coaching staff and front office saw something in their project.
“Chad is different [than Lynch],” head coach Vance Joseph said after an early training camp session, per Jon Heath of USA Today‘s Broncos Wire. “He’s a playmaker. If it’s a dirty play, he makes it look clean. That’s his strength. He’s just a playmaker…”
Like Lynch, Kelly’s overall preparedness became evident during his collegiate career—the main difference being that the Ole Miss quarterback came into the league with a translatable skill set even though off-field concerns drove down his draft stock.
On the surface, the 6’2″, 224-pound quarterback epitomized a boom-or-bust prospect most organizations stayed the hell away from because of a checkered history and inconsistent play. The Clemson Tigers program dismissed the former 4-star recruit in 2014 because of conduct detrimental to the team. NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein noted he had “multiple blowups with coaches.”
The pattern didn’t stop during a layover at East Mississippi Community College or his final stop at Ole Miss. Buffalo police arrested the Rebels commit after a nightclub brawl in which he punched a bouncer in the face, threatened to use an AK-47 and resisted arrest. After signing with Ole Miss, the collegiate quarterback once ran onto the field during his brother’s high school football game and tried to join a fight.
“I just wouldn’t want to put my name behind him because I think it will come back and bite you with on-field and off-field mistakes,” an AFC East scout told Zierlein. “We value leadership at quarterback, and I don’t trust his.”
Kelly’s on-field decision-making has never been a major question mark, but a torn ACL and lateral meniscus in his right knee during his senior year may have had a more profound effect on his draft status.
Of course, Lynch looked like a better prospect entering the league, as Pro Football Focus insinuated:
PFF DEN Broncos @PFF_Broncos
Paxton Lynch Overall Grades in College:
2014: 80.7 (21/156)
2015: 89.7 (12/175)
Chad Kelly Overall Grades in College:
2015: 84.6 (26/175)
2016: 81.4 (23/171)
But basic stats and grades don’t encapsulate the two quarterbacks’ varying strengths and weaknesses.
Kelly is an anticipatory thrower with a certain toughness in the pocket and the ability to create outside of structure. Each of these traits is vital in today’s NFL.
Quarterbacks must be able to see developing patterns to throw receivers open. Windows are far too tight to wait for someone to be available. Pro Football Focus’ Brendan Leister highlighted a play in which Kelly releases a pass well before his target is ready for the ball:
Brendan Leister @BrendanLeister
If you ever wonder what analysts mean when they cite anticipation, this is a prime example. Awesome play by Kelly. https://t.co/gfuAkNWeoT
On top of that, quarterbacks rarely get to make throws from a clean pocket. Either they must stare down the middle and take a direct hit while still delivering the football or evade pressure, reset and find an open man.
Lynch doesn’t consistently display any of these traits. Each should be considered a positive in Kelly’s game.
“Watching him throw last year, before he went to NFI [non-football injury], he wasn’t healthy,” Joseph said, per Zack Kelberman of 247Sports. “… He’s healthy … It doesn’t look clean all the time, he’s kind of moving around and scrambling off his back leg, but he does make plays. He is fearless.”
The seventh-round pick completed 70 percent of his passes for 267 yards, three touchdowns and an interception through the first two preseason contests against the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears. He’s been decisive and impressive with quick-strike ability, like the throw seen below, courtesy of the NFL:
The Broncos’ patience may have led them toward an unexpected quarterback solution. Individuals mature at different rates, and some blossom (mentally and physically) later in the process. This seems to be the case for Kelly, who at 24 years old is the same age as Lynch.
Keenum will have the first crack at securing the position beyond 2018. One has to ask, though: Is he a viable starting option or a one-year wonder? Nobody can answer that question at the moment. The Broncos can save $11 million against the salary cap next season by releasing Keenum after the upcoming campaign, per Spotrac.
This opens the door slightly for anyone willing to take advantage of the situation.
“I’m going to prepare like I’m a starter and go out and do my job to the best of my ability and keep on working hard because the minute you slip up, the next person is trying to lap you,” Kelly said after being named the team’s QB2, per The Athletic’s Nicki Jhabvala.
At this point, Kelly looks like he’ll lap Lynch. Denver must be displeased yet thrilled at the same time. The organization can switch one potential franchise quarterback for another.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.